UHCL The Signal
The official student newspaper of the University of Houston-Clear Lake

Environmental Institute Educates Community About Sustainability

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Shiela Brown, habitat curriculum specialist with the Environmental Institute of Houston, waters the “pizza” garden. All the herbs grown in the garden are used to make pizza. Photo by David Rozycki: The Signal.
Shiela Brown, habitat curriculum specialist with the Environmental Institute of Houston, waters the “pizza” garden. All the herbs grown in the garden are used to make pizza. Photo by David Rozycki: The Signal.

When students come to the UHCL campus, there is one feature that is unique from other campuses: its environment. UHCL resides on a 524-acre nature preserve along the Armand Bayou.

Not only can students enjoy the nature scenery, they can also participate in maintaining a healthy environment around the campus.

The Environmental Institute of Houston (EIH), located on the north annex of the UHCL campus, was established to address environmental issues through research, education and outreach.

“Students are more than welcome to come to the EIH anytime to eat lunch, volunteer or to study,” said Rowena McDermid, master naturalist in environmental education at EIH.

EIH has many projects and programs that include UHCL students as well as the surrounding community.

Once a week elementary children from Clear Creek Independent School District (CCISD) come to EIH to learn the importance of sustaining life through outdoor learning in the UHCL Water Smart Educational Training Habitat.

The program was funded by chemical company Lyondell Basell and built by volunteers.

“[Water Smart Educational Training Habitat] focuses on aspects of sustainable landscaping, so that includes landscaping that conserves water, protects water quality, and another big component and a passion of mine is landscaping for wildlife,” said Christina LaChance, Water Smart Program coordinator.

The program helps children with many different curriculums, such as math, writing and science through outdoor learning. EIH offers various teacher workshops to help local schools use these programs in their classrooms.

EIH also features a butterfly garden and a hummingbird garden that students and community members can enjoy.

One of the largest projects that EIH has worked on is replacing the wetlands in Armand Bayou.

In 2010, EIH began construction on a wetland project, which is now complete, to help sustain life in the bayou and help the water quality of the bayou. The project reached completion in September 2011.

The wetland is now a source for graduate students’ research and local schools’ field trips. It also helps to sustain wildlife in Armand Bayou.

“[Wetlands] improve water quality, provide habitat and also provide research and teaching opportunities for our campus,” said George Guillen, executive director of EIH.

EIH also has a bird housing facility on campus for purple martins that are used as a teaching tool for students and local elementary schools.

“Back in 2007, I had noticed one day a very small, wooden birdhouse, erected on a pole, outside of the EIH building,” said Matt Fendley, university computing and telecommunications systems coordinator. “I immediately recognized it as a purple martin house, however, I noticed there were no martins nesting in it and took that opportunity to get in touch with EIH.”

Purple martins rely on what already exists, whether previously used nests or man-made housing, to nest and raise their babies. After Hurricane Ike destroyed the previous martin house on campus, Fendley built the new one, which is larger and includes a live camera to allow students to watch the springtime nesting progress online.

When students come to learn about the birds, they get to experience the purple martins in all stages of life and discover how the birds help the environment around them.  For example, the purple martins help sustain life on campus by reducing the insect population around campus.

“Purple martins on campus are such a great teaching tool in addition to just having beautiful wildlife on campus,” Fendley said.

EIH is partially funded by the Texas Legislature and supported by state and federal grants. The grant funding allows the EIH to provide more resources to the community and fund more projects, such as a new demonstration urban garden.

Students interested in volunteering their time to help the efforts of the Environmental Institute of Houston can join the volunteer habitat workdays every Tuesday at 9 a.m.

For other ways to help or to learn more about sustainability efforts on campus, visit the EIH office at the North Annex Office or the EIH website at www.eih.uhcl.edu. To watch the purple martin house video live in the spring, go to www.eih.uhcl.edu/video.

Photos and slideshow by The Signal reporter David Rozycki.